Friday, February 20, 2004

What social computing can learn from anthropology

For a very long time anthropologists have been mapping social networks - they're called kinship charts and they represent the wide variety of family relations around the world.

According to Michael Fischer's work on Representing Anthropological Knowledge: Calculating Kinship, Analyzing and Understanding Cultural Codes:

Kinship is one of the more important, pervasive and complex systems of culture. All human groups have a kinship terminology, a set of terms used to refer to kin. Many parts of life in all societies are impacted by kinship, and in most societies kinship relations influence things like who one can and can not marry, who one must show respect to, who one can joke with, and who one can count on in a crisis.

These principles of interaction are not limited to kin, or family - and I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks that a more nuanced and qualitative understanding of how people are related to each other in a variety of contexts would greatly benefit current research and development in social computing applications.

Fischer goes on to explain that anthropologists have used computers since the 1960s to help make sense of kinship data, although

it is easier to present an idealised kinship chart than to deal with actual populations. Besides the more obvious problems of deviance from conventions, there are problems of different kin cluster sizes, sheer quantity of people, and deciding precisely what kinds of relationships to diagram. By diagramming actual people in actual relationships, we are introducing both mechanical and conceptual problems.

When it comes to defining the conceptual requirements for kinship modelling, the anthropologist must also be clear about her requirements. For example, a generic computer function would be establishing links between individuals in a population; a specialised function might be establishing gift giving and receiving conventions and taboos amongst a particular group of people. Most social and cultural interaction exhibits rather complex patterning that calls for more specialised computer functions; to simply draw out links between people will never be enough.

Since all people are social creatures, it is very easy to assume that we all understand social relationships - but without detailed conceptual requirements and specification models, many types and means of relationship will simply be inferred or taken for granted by the designers and programmers, and in the end, limit the software's capacity to represent and adapt to people's actual lived experiences.

Update: Matt Jones just pointed me to Simon Roberts' Linkship: Imagining a New Kinship of Networks presentation (slides here) from 2002. Maybe Will Davies or another of the fine folks at the i-society will read this post and explain why the idea still hasn't caught on? :)

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